Winter Bird Feeding: Bringin’ in the Birds

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A male northern cardinal on the approach to a backyard winter lunch.
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Hey, winter's a tough time for humans, too. Fortunately, we have our feathered friends to put a brighter face on the season. Through winter bird feeding, you'll be able to watch their cheerful antics as they come and go at your feeders.
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A male red-bellied woodpecker enjoys sunflower seeds.

Whoever came up with the expression “eats like a bird” to
describe someone with an eensy appetite never watched wild
birds in winter. Although feathers do a fine job of
insulating a small bird’s body from cold, food is the fuel
that stokes its inner fires, keeping its metabolism
generating crucial heat and energy. From sunup to sundown,
an overwintering bird’s focus in life is to feed its face.
Most small species need to eat from 1/3 to
3/4 their body weight in food each day. No
gluttony here, though; the name of the game is survival,
pure and simple. No food, no tomorrow.

Unfortunately, at the same time wintry weather forces birds
to increase their caloric intake, it also reduces the
pickings — meals become hard to find. Gone are summer’s
salad days, when tasty insects filled the air and leaves
were acrawl with plump larvae. Fall’s harvest of ripened
seeds and berries has passed, too. What seeds remain are
covered by snow or thinly scattered to the winds; ice coats
tree buds and fruit.

Winter, in other words, is tough on birds. And this is
where we humans come in — not only to the birds’
benefit, but to ours as well. According to surveys, about
1/3 of adults feed backyard birds, doling out roughly
500,000 tons of commercial birdseed a year, along with
countless quantities of suet cakes, seed logs and other
treats.

We do it partially to help the birds, of course. Although
most birds are able to forage successfully despite the
bleak and bone-chilling conditions, mere beak-to-mouth
survival does not an easy life make. Feeders enable birds
to find food faster and more easily than searching for tiny
weed seeds and bark-buried, semifrozen grubs. Less
searching may also mean less risk of predation.

But the truth is, we feed birds to nourish our own
winter-weary souls, too. Somehow watching birds flit from
feeder to bush to branch, to feeder to bush to branch,
lifts our spirits. Putting out feeders not only gives us a
closer look at our feathered friends, but also gives us a
greater sense of kinship with the creatures sharing our
natural world.

Here are some ways to help you, your family and your
backyard birds benefit more from winter bird feeding:

Advertise

By the time winter rolls around, most birds already have
regular feeding routes they established in summer and fall.
In cold weather, they can’t risk scouting for new sources.
So if you’re setting feeders out for the first time or
putting one in a new location, you may need to “advertise”
to attract bird customers and gain their confidence. Put
out a temporary, open feeder first. Use a weathered piece
of plywood or board, perhaps with furring strips tacked
around the edges as a rim. Drill several holes for
drainage. Put the “ad” in the open where birds will see it,
but close to cover. It’s best to set the board up off the
ground — on a tree stump, for instance, or anchored to
a limb.

Now sprinkle some birdseed and bits of white bread on the
tray. Birds sometimes hesitate to try store-bought seed,
but white bread (not wheat, not rye — only white) is a
sure-fire lure. Of course it’s also nutritionally hollow,
so consider it strictly a grand-opening come-on.

You’ll have to restock the tray every day or two because
the food is exposed to rain, wind and four-legged
critters — a disadvantage of using this kind of feeder
long-term. Fortunately, within a week or so you should have
plenty of regular customers. Then you can put out better
(roofed, watertight) feeders filled with more nutritious
food. Gradually cut back the rations on the tray (starting
with the bread), and the birds will switch to the feeders.

Watch the Weather

All things considered, winter birds are amazingly
resourceful, resilient survivors. Under most conditions
they’ll get along just fine without human intervention.
This is not necessarily the case, however, in extremely
harsh weather. Severe storms, bitter high winds, long
periods of extreme cold and a host of other potentially
deadly variables from Mother Nature can take a significant
toll on bird populations. During these times, feeders may
be their only reliable, accessible food sources.
Try always to keep your feeders stocked, but make doubly
sure during periods of sleet, ice, snow or serious cold.

Put fresh water out daily, too, when temperatures stay
below freezing. If you have a birdbath, use a commercial
birdbath-heating element to keep the water from icing. Or
just make breaking any ice a morning ritual.

Practice Crowd and Pest Control

To prevent overcrowding at your backyard diner while
attracting as many kinds of birds as possible, offer a
variety of seeds and treats in feeders located at different
levels and spaced sufficiently to give all comers a place
at the table. Be aware, however, that some birds will try
to monopolize your feeders. If large species such as
pigeons and blackbirds are scaring smaller songbirds away,
use perchless hanging feeders that won’t support the
heavier callers. Or just toss bread or cracked corn on the
ground away from other feeders, to give the bullies their
own food.

Squirrels, of course, are infamous for their ability to get
into bird feeders. To discourage them, avoid hanging your
feeders from tree limbs and beneath eaves. Instead, mount
feeders on individual poles at least 6 feet off the ground
and beyond jumping distance (about 6 feet) from your roof
or surrounding trees.

If squirrels become a problem at a tree-mounted feeder,
tack a 3-foot section of sheet metal around the trunk or
branch. Or invest in a commercial squirrel-proof feeder.
Most models are all-steel (squirrels easily chew through
plastic) and feature a weighted perch mechanism that allows
birds to dine but closes the food hopper when visited by
fat, furry four-leggers. If all else fails, try putting
feed out each day just 30 minutes before nightfall, when
squirrels already are bedded down but many birds are still
foraging.

Diseases such as salmonella can spread at bird feeders.
Clean your feeders at least once a year — some experts
say once a month is not too often. Use a stiff brush to
scrub feeders thoroughly with a 10 percent bleach solution
(one part bleach to nine parts warm water), then rinse them
well and wipe them dry.

Think Nutrition

Not all birdseed is created equal, and not all birds like
all birdseed. Supermarket mixtures are often heavy on
low-nutrient, low demand seeds such as milo. Instead, buy
individual types in bulk and mix your own. Or offer
different kinds in different feeders.

Black oil-type sunflower and white proso millet will
attract nearly all kinds of seed-eating backyard birds and
are by far the most popular with the widest variety of
species. Use them in most of your feeders, then add some
variety with nutritious but more species-specific fare.
Niger thistle appeals especially to pine siskins,
goldfinches, and purple and house finches. Peanut kernels
are ambrosia to the tufted titmouse. Jays and cardinals
enjoy munching into black-stripe sunflower seeds. Cracked
corn is a favorite of mourning doves, grackles and juncos.

Suet’ll Do It

Most birds eat insects as well as seeds. In winter, suet
(raw fat) serves as an important high-calorie substitute
for summer’s six-legged protein. Woodpeckers, flickers,
chickadees and nuthatches are among the many species that
benefit from it. Chunks of hard, unstringy beef suet are
best. Just hang some outside in a plastic mesh bag or
wire-mesh suet holder. It’ll be eaten long before it
spoils. Or if you prefer, pack softened suet into pine or
hemlock cones and tie the cones to tree branches. Or better
yet, stuff the cones with this high-fat, high-protein
recipe: Combine 2 cups of warm, melted suet with 1 cup each
of yellow cornmeal and peanut butter. Cool, stuff and
serve.

Don’t Forget the Grit

Grit is essential in most birds’ diets, both as an aid to
digestion and as a source of minerals. Birds usually get
all they need from sand, tiny pebbles and such, but snow
cover can make grit tough to find. (That’s why you
sometimes see birds in winter pecking at asphalt roof
shingles.) To help, put out a small dish of coarse
sand — preferably seashore sand, which contains
calcium-rich shell and high-mineral quartz. Chicken egg
shells, dried and crushed, also are a good source of grit
and calcium. Add them to whatever birdseed or suet mixtures
you use.

Offer Treats, Too

Birds needn’t live by birdseed alone. Offer treats
occasionally, too. Crackers, doughnuts, raisin bread,
cooked sweet potato, baked beans, dry pet chow and cut
pieces of fruit — apples, bananas, pears,
plums — are popular snacks at backyard feeders. Grape
and apple jellies are favored by overwintering warblers and
make good cold-weather food because they don’t freeze.
Coconut meat is a favorite of woodpeckers, chickadees and
titmice. Just crack open a nut and hang the pieces from
branches. (Don’t serve dry shredded coconut, because it
swells after being swallowed. And straight peanut butter
can be too sticky for small species to manage.)

Plant Living Feeders

Feeding birds commercial birdseed helps them through harsh
winter conditions, but it’s no substitute for improving
backyard habitat. In spring and fall, plant a variety of
trees, shrubs and other vegetation that not only serve up
food such as buds and berries but also provide shelter and
nesting sites. Holly, winterberry, cotoneaster and many
other food-bearers yield nutritious fare that’s more
appealing to a wider variety of birds than commercial food.
Nurseries and garden centers can help you choose the
“living bird feeders” that grow best in your area.

Enjoy the Show

Hey, winter’s a tough time for humans, too. Fortunately, we
have our feathered friends to help. Watching their cheerful
antics as they come and go at your feeders definitely puts
a brighter face on the season. Be sure to take time each
day to snuggle up in a cozy chair near a window and enjoy
the show.